LAS VEGAS, NV – After being tested on Wednesday by Alabama, No. 4 Arizona Basketball has a few key players to watch and checklist items to secure its 10th win of the season.
In the final game of its monstrous non-conference slate, No. 4 Arizona Basketball will head to Las Vegas to take on No. 14 FAU. The Owls (9-2) have two players averaging 14.5 points per game or more and are coming off a 10-point victory over St. Bonaventure (7-3). They will look to snag their third straight win after dropping a game to No. 20 Illinois.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, are coming off a game where they took down Alabama 87-74. Despite the 13-point gap in the final score, Arizona was tested heavily in the first half, where they committed 11 fouls and eight turnovers, and overcame a 9-0 deficit to start the game. The Wildcats will need to find a rhythm early because this FAU team poses yet another extremely tough matchup.
FAU is a team that has been on the rise since the takeover of fifth-year head coach Dusty May. It all came to a head last season when the Owls made a miraculous run to the Final Four before falling 1 point short against San Diego State. Since then, FAU has made the jump from revolving-door Conference USA into a more stable Group of 5 conference in the American Athletic Conference, and the Owls have shown that they deserve to be where they're at.
FAU started the season ranked at No. 10 in the AP Poll and, despite a few setbacks, the Owls have pulled together a strong resume. Every single opponent on their schedule outside of one (looking at you, FIU) currently has a winning record
Their finest showing was in the three-game ESPN Events Invitational. They were slated to face Butler in the first round, who was 5-1 at the time and is currently 10-2. FAU pulled off a 91-86 win and moved on to face then-No. 12 Texas A&M in the semifinals. The Aggies, who are currently unranked and 8-4, may be the Owls' second-easiest matchup this season in hindsight (again, looking at you, FIU). FAU served up a 96-89 win to move onto the finals, where they faced off against Virginia Tech. The Hokies, who sit at 9-3 right now, had absolutely no answers and were embarrassed 84-50.
The only two losses FAU has taken this season have come at the hands of sneaky high-major Butler and No. 20 Illinois. It's easy to understand losing a matchup against a ranked foe, despite FAU being ranked ahead of the Illini.
Players to watch
FAU is led by the two-headed monster of Vladislav Goldin and Johnell Davis. Davis leads the team in minutes per game (28.9) and steals (19) and he's second on the team in points per game (14.5), rebounds per game (6.9), and 3-point percentage (48.8). He will likely draw matchups against Caleb Love or Pelle Larsson, and the Wildcats will need to prepare for the Owls' second option to be scoring like a normal primary threat.
Goldin, a 7-foot-1 center, is a massive presence in the key for the Owls. He leads the team in several statistical categories including points per game (15.1), blocks (20), and rebounds per game (seven). He's able to be such an impact player on such limited minutes (21.9 per game, seventh on team) thanks to his nation-leading shooting percentage from the field (75.9%). Arizona centers Oumar Ballo and Motiejus Krivas will have their hands full with Goldin as the coverage matchup on both offense and defense.
Keys to an Arizona win
Despite FAU being an extremely strong team, the Wildcats still have a very clearly defined path to victory. The Alabama game showed some weaknesses in a few Arizona players that, if properly handled, could make FAU pay if the Owls hone in too much on those aspects of the game.
Stars returning to form
If Arizona takes home a win, it will largely be due to the effort of Caleb Love. Though he had a rough outing against the Crimson Tide and played just 25 minutes, he still leads the team in scoring with 15.5 points per game in his first season in the desert. We also aren't far removed from his 29-point onslaught against No. 3 Purdue, where he posted 20 points in the second half alone. Expect him to see a lot of time on the court as he looks to bounce back towards or above his season average of 28.8 minutes per game.
Hopefully, Oumar Ballo has been drilling his free-throws in practice. The first time Alabama tried to "hack-a-Shaq" him, he immediately responded by nailing both ensuing free throws. He ended the day 6-10 from the charity stripe, but he could put that strategy to bed today with another "ice-in-his-veins" pair of free throws if he ends up getting hacked again. As the starting center and the tallest of the starters (7 feet), his defensive abilities will be put to the test when matched up against Goldin. He leads the team in defensive rebounds and will need to stay alert whenever FAU pulls the trigger on a shot.
Contributions from young talent
Freshman KJ Lewis and sophomore Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley each made a strong case to get more playing time in Wednesday's game. Bradley posted a solid showing against his former team, but Lewis was the show-stealing bench player of the night. Lewis was the only Wildcat to not record a turnover in his season-high 22 minutes. He also tallied up 9 points, four rebounds, four assists, and three steals.